LONDON – A former shipbuilding town in northeast England may be an unlikely place for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to rehabilitate his tarnished reputation.
Yet hundreds of Newcastle residents gathered outside the city’s football stadium last week to pay homage to the power behind the Saudi throne – the man widely known as MBS.
Some tied tea towels to their heads, others waved Saudi flags, and some even wore masks of the Crown Prince himself – a world leader accused of a number of human rights abuses and the murder of a prominent journalist.
On a sporting level, these supporters had every reason to cheer. Saudi Arabia’s US $ 400 billion sovereign wealth fund had just bought its long-suffering football team Newcastle United and overnight turned them into the richest club in the world. But the deal has sparked criticism that Saudi Arabia uses the team founded in 1892 as a vehicle for “sports washing”.
In other words, Saudi Arabia is being accused of washing its reputation so that it is no longer synonymous with a brutal absolute monarchy imprisoning activists, performing public beheadings, and suppressing women and the LGBTQ community, and is instead being used as the smiling face known for international football success.
“It gives the Saudi authorities the opportunity to share their name, branding and positive messages about their country around the world,” said Felix Jakens, UK campaign leader for human rights group Amnesty International.
It is a well-known game book. Manchester City is now owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family and Paris Saint Germain by the Qatar sovereign wealth fund, to name a few. The football elite is increasingly dominated by far-flung regimes with bottomless pockets.
But the Saudi Newcastle acquisition has sparked international outrage on another level.
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“This is a country that has committed some of the worst systematic human rights violations against its own people – and the situation is getting worse, not better,” Jakens said.
The Saudi media ministry did not respond to a request for comment on its human rights record and allegations of sports underwear.
The face of the $ 400 million deal is a British businesswoman, Amanda Staveley of PCP Capital Partners. Saudi Arabia’s state public investment fund owns 80 percent of the team.
The consortium says the fund is independent from the Saudi government. The Premier League says it has received “legally binding representations” that it will. Many experts disagree, pointing out that the fund’s board of directors is made up of Saudi government ministers and the chairman is MBS himself.
The Crown Prince has tried to upgrade the kingdom’s image from an exporter of Islamic radicalism to a modern powerhouse powered instead by technology, tourism, entertainment and sports. As part of the social reforms, women are now allowed to drive and cinemas are opening for the first time in 35 years.
MBS’s motivation is sheer survival. He knows that Saudi Arabia’s enormous oil wealth will not last forever, said David Roberts, associate professor at King’s College London.
“There’s an existential need for colossal change – fiddling with the edges won’t make it,” said Roberts. “That was the fire under MBS. He wants to redesign every element of the state. “
This promised transformation has inspired international commentators. But that narrative turned sour in 2018 when Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist who wrote for the Washington Post, was murdered by a Saudi killer squad. The CIA says MBS most likely approved the murder, which it denies.
The role of Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war has also caused international disgust. United Nations investigators until recently investigated allegations that the kingdom and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels it is fighting may have committed war crimes.
Human rights violations and possible war crimes do not seem to bother many Newcastle fans, with more than 97 percent loudly supporting the takeover a poll of the club’s supporters trust last year.
Football is treated like a quasi-religion in Newcastle, fans have been disappointed for decades and their last major trophy comes in 1955.
But United’s large, dedicated fan base also meant the club was seen as a sleeping giant ripe for investment. The takeover will resonate well beyond the city limits and give Riyadh a permanent place in the most lucrative football league in the world with an average global audience of around 3 million per game.
Many fans are simply delighted to see the back of their previous owner, the deeply unpopular British trade tycoon Mike Ashley. But they have also welcomed their new investors without hesitation.
The crowd in front of the stadium chanted, “We are Saudis, we do what we want,” last week as followers on social media turned their avatars into the face of MBS.
The fans “are not numb,” said a post on True Faith, a podcast for Newcastle United fans. “They don’t say ‘I don’t care about human rights’ but in that context it is not that important to an everyday football fan and they have no control over it.”
Some have become hostile to the media, wondering why Newcastle appears to be more controlled than American or British governments that have sold arms to Saudi Arabia.
They point to the growing list of sports teams funded by overseas petromillions: If they can, why not us?
“We are under attack,” said another post on the True Faith podcast. “We do not care. We’re all totally buzzing. “